Writing in The New Yorker, Sarah Sentilles takes an insightful and provocative dive into Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography. Click here to read the full essay. Click here to learn more about the book. An excerpt appears below:
“Several years ago, while staring at a photograph of torture on the front page of the newspaper, I began seriously asking myself a question that many people had asked before: What should one do when faced with images of violence? I spent thirteen years researching the question, which became more urgent as those years passed and social media began connecting people around the globe. Every week, perhaps every day, something terrible happens somewhere in the world, and, whether it is far away or right at home, we are inundated with images of the horror. Do these images harm their subjects? Is it an ethical violation to make a photograph of suffering beautiful? Do I have a right to look at other people’s pain?
“I read theorists who claim that violent images are pornographic, theorists who point out the narcissism of worrying about the effects of images on viewers, theorists who fear that looking at images of suffering extends that suffering. Then I read Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography, which was first published, in Hebrew, in 2007, and translated into English by Rela Mazali and Ruvik Danieli the following year. Suddenly, every question that seemed important to me felt beside the point. Azoulay, a curator, filmmaker, and professor at Brown, is not interested in viewers’ emotional responses to images of suffering. It’s not empathy she’s after; she wants action. Images can transform the world, she argues, and the only reason they haven’t yet is because we don’t know how to look at them. The problem isn’t images; it’s us….
“The more I return to Azoulay’s work, the more I’m convinced she might actually think the past can be changed. Photography, in her hands, takes on an almost shamanic power. Viewing a picture becomes a way of offering healing or reparation to those already dead. Her book scared me—I felt overwhelmed by her proposal that every time I look at an image of a person in pain I am bound to that person, obligated to try to end that person’s suffering. I thought of a friend whose son was diagnosed with a fatal disease. When he was dying, people would say to her, ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through.’ She would respond, ‘Yes, you can imagine it. You just don’t want to.’
“For many years, I said I didn’t know what to do when I encountered an image of another person in pain or dying or already dead. After reading Azoulay, I could no longer claim that I didn’t know what to do. She had explained the work in detail. The question for me now is whether I am up to the task.”